My rating: 5 stars
A painting shrouded in mystery serves as the trigger for the plot of The Muse by Jessie Burton. This is a beautifully crafted novel featuring several themes that gracefully come together in a story connecting two time periods: 1936 and 1967. Insights into artists’ feelings are mixed with criticisms on both unequal treatment of women and racism, achieving an enthralling read.
Odelle Bastien moved from Port of Spain (Trinidad) to London looking for a better life. She has a degree in English Literature, but is working in a shoe shop, what doesn’t stop her from hoping to get another job where she can better apply her skills. 1967 is the year when she receives a letter from Marjorie Quick offering her a job as a typist at the Skelton Gallery.
She narrates the story in the first person. The reader has direct access to her thoughts and feelings, how she always wanted to write, how she becomes amazed by Quick after starting her new job, and how she is struggling with the fact that her best friend Cynthia is not going to live with her anymore after getting married.
It is during her long-time friend’s wedding party that Odelle meets Lawrie, a man whose mother has died and bequeathed him a painting, which he intends to sell. Odelle becomes interested in / attracted to him, but tries not to reveal her feelings at first. The way in which the painting is described is a great example of how Jessie Burton manages to transform into words the feelings conveyed by a visual form of art:
“The sky above was darker and less decorous; there was something nightmarish about its bruised indigoes.”
Later, Lawrie takes the painting to the Skelton Gallery for an evaluation, although he confesses that he also really wanted to see Odelle again. Quick acts in a really strange way when she sees the painting, raising suspicions that she knows more about it than she is revealing.
In 1936, Olive Schloss, the daughter of an Austrian art dealer man and an English woman, arrives at a house in rural Spain for a long stay with her parents. She gathers courage to tell them that she has been accepted to do a Fine Arts degree. After their arrival two strangers come to greet them and everything changes. Isaac Robles is a republican and socialist who talks about the starvation of the poor at the hands of the aristocracy. Teresa, his sister, is younger and seems to be eager to have someone to call friend.
Throughout the novel there are various instances of criticism to unequal treatment of women and their lack of opportunities, as well as to racism, which are well wrapped in the plot, not feeling like disconnected preaching. Odelle wonders how Quick managed to be in the position she is into, while Olive muses on how difficult it is for women to be considered as artists. Moreover, Odelle has to deal with both covert and open racism in her daily life.
However, this is foremost a book about artists, the importance of their identity, their craft, self-doubts, their sources of inspiration and the purpose of art, and how these can be perceived differently by various people. Odelle, for example, reflects various times on her desire to be a writer and how that affects her life.
“Like most artists, everything I produced was connected to who I was – and so I suffered according to how my work was received.”
“I’d been writing for so long for the particular purpose of being approved that I’d forgotten the genesis of my impulse”.
The story being told felt authentic, despite being fictional. That was achieved not only by the introduction of various real historical occurrences, such as the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, Nazism and the Second World War, but also by the complexity and genuineness of the characters. I cared about their story and wanted to be able to read all at once to know what connected them.
More or less halfway through the book I thought that I had figured out the relation between the two stories in its entirety, but I was mistaken. Although some of my suspicions were right, I was wrong about some things. Important and shocking events, which increased my heartbeat, started being revealed and I couldn’t stop reading. Thinking back, the clues were there, I had just overlooked them.
The Muse, just like The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s first novel, uses mysteries and historical settings to create a story that highlights important issues. The great display of feelings through the actions of the characters and the creation of atmospheres complements this page-turner novel that delves into the world of art.